Move over BTV

Bangladeshis may just get to see real television. Privately run.

When Ekushey Television (ETV) begins transmission on 16 December 1999, it will be the first private sector terrestrial TV station in Bangladesh, and also in South Asia. And the people at ETV are rather proud of it, not least because of this singular achievement.

The term ekushey (Bangla for 21) itself is a potent symbol. On 21 February 1952, students agitating in Dhaka for recognition of Bangla as one of the state languages of the then united Pakistan, were killed in police fire. The shooting ignited a series of protests that would last all the way to war and independence in 1971. (December 16 has been significantly chosen, as that is the day of victory over Pakistan in 1971.)

"Ekushey sums up what we are about and want to achieve. It's not just about a day in history which gave spirit to the nationalist movement based on culture and language, but the spirit which has driven the Bangla people to nationhood. It also means bridging the past with the future as well —this century's Ekushey spirit moving into the Ekushey [21st] century," says Simon Dring, one of the two managing directors of ETV.

Dring sees ETV as an opportunity to reach into the lives of the millions who can be positively influenced through a TV station driven by quality and meaningful broadcasting. "It's easy to produce programmes and just beam it down. We want more, we want to utilise the full potential of TV."

Dring is a legend in Bangladesh in his own right. A Britisher, he was in Bangladesh during the liberation war as correspondent for The Telegraph of London. When all the foreign correspondents were driven out after the 1971 March massacre, he hid in the present Sheraton (then the Inter-Continental) Hotel and thereafter toured the city. His on-the-spot reports of the killings were flashed all over the world. This endeared him to all generations of Bangladeshis, including the late Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, and his daughter Sheikh Hasina, now prime minister.

Tackling the market

While dreams are all right, does it make business sense? Is the Bangla viewership market, large as it is, robust enough for two terrestrials (the other being the state-owned BTV —Bangladesh Television)? ETV people are sure that it is possible for two to survive, but only two, not three. They are convinced that it is possible to make money and good programmes at the same time. Says Dring, "It's possible to be public service-driven broadcasters and still make money. Our planning is very practical, and market researchdriven.  We have the investors making sure we are planning to make profit. We are accountable to them. And we believe South Asian broadcasting has to be different."

ETV enjoys the backing of some giant  names.  Apart from A.S Mahmud as chairman — who was one-time managing director of Mediaworld, the group that brings out Daily Star —ETV is supported by some big players including the Square group, the Rangs group, and others, mostly from the district of Sylhet, which is where most of the owner; of 'Indian' restaurants in london come from. This community is one vast source of funds that Mahmud can tap into should he want to. The estimated project cost of ETV stands at around BDT 75-80 crore (c. USD 15 million).

Discussions on ETV began in early 1997 when Farhad Mahmud, son of A.S. Manmud and the other managing director of the company, had a conversation with Dring who was staying at a local hotel. At that time, they were not the only ones talking Some of Bangladesh's largest business and media houses were keen on starting a TV channel, and although there was no policy to allow private sector broadcasting, over a dozen unsolicited applications were lying with the prime minister, and soon ETV's proposal joined the pile. In March this year, ETV finished ahead of the pack and got a 15-year licence.

This has led to speculation that ETV enjoys official patronage. All the more so because ETV will be using the five BTV earth stations for transmission. Both TV stations are to share the BTV towers which are being upgraded with ETV money. ETV bosses deny any shady deals. Says Dring, "The crucial difference was we had worked a lot to get a proper proposal complete with technical and financial analyses done by international experts"

Adds fellow director Mahmud, "Of course we lobbied intensively as did others but in the end we got the licence because we had a stronger offer. We were willing to commit millions of dollars. We had cooperation from BBC engineers. We have attracted direct foreign investment in a sector in Bangladesh which people would hardly rate as attractive or even possible."

Investors are being drawn to broadcasting in Bangla by the sheer size of the viewership in the country, now estimated at over 50 million. Market studies have shown a huge concentration of "small-time buyers". And the response to ATN Bangla —an entertainment cable channel that has practically wiped out Hindi cable viewing in Bangladesh—is one proof that local language programmes can indeed generate substantial viewership. The total advertisement market for television is approximately BDT 1 billion (USD 20.8 million), which is bound to soar if, as advertisers hope, ETV reaches rural viewers.

In the race between BTV and ETV, it is clear that the former will lose some of its market, if not most. And it may lose some more, if two more channels, which are in the pipeline, come through. They are Impress TV belonging to the country's largest TV software production house which has a turnover running into tens of millions, and Channel TEN, an outfit which plans to hit the Hindi market with entertainment programmes. Star Bangla, backed by the Star Group, may also step in.

The quality bottomline
The one challenge facing ETV, which its management understands only too well, will be in the quality of programmes. Says Dring, "We may set up a separate outfit just to train our staff and contracted independents. That we hope will be a continuous activity and contribute to the overall increase of programme quality."

ETV plans to transmit 12 hours on weekdays and over 17 hours during the weekend. "Programming will be split into NCA [news and current affairs], entertainment and development programmes. We are committing at least two hours every day to development programmes," informs filmmaker Fuad Chowdhury, a non-resident Bangladeshi who has returned home to work with ETV as in-charge of the development programmes. Like Fuad, ETV may rope in some other NRBs. "For them this is mainstream work and not just a subsidised ethnic venture. That makes a lot of difference," says Fuad.

But it is the news and current affairs section, into which heavy investment has gone, that will make or break ETV. And here it has a great opportunity given that BTV's news presentations have little credibility. "A lot of energy is going into planning the NCA which is not just about politics but which focusses on lives all over Bangladesh and on all the aspects. NCA has to be decentralised and should have a far more rural bias," says Dring, whose own experience of the last 35 years has been in news and current affairs.

Everything sounds upbeat right now, but that's how it is usually during the planning period. The broadcasters are promising the world, and in the first days of the Ekushey century, South Asia will get an inkling whether television can make a difference to the Bangladeshi's world.

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